One midnight recently I was beguiled by a pair of radio programmes by David Attenborough about the controversial Waterside Ape Theory. (I instantly transposed it in my head to the Shoreline Ape Theory which I like better and I will use here.) These programmes challenged the received and scientifically respectable theory that man evolved from a hair covered quadruped to a smoother skinned bi-ped by surviving on the dry plains of the African Savannah in the end rearing up onto two legs as he went about hunting prey and making bloody scraps available for the less skilled females and children so they could survive into the next generation.
But now the ‘rather suspect’ Shoreline Ape theory has emerged in the last thirty years, supported by the discovery by palaeontologists of fossil remains of hominid bi-peds on the lake and sea shorelines of
The thought is that here on the shoreline the apelike quadrupeds evolved into upright ape-like bipeds supplemented their resources on the lake and sea shorelines by diving in the shallow waters, harvesting and eating the freely available shellfish from the rocks. There is logic in this. Standing up on two legs was much easier in the water; finding food to survive in this way reduced the life risks and the hard labour of hunting for food by chasing and killing animals across the threatening savannah.
For the hunter gatherer this easier less physical work meant that as part of this stage of evolution he- or she (now it was very commonly a she) became accustomed to holding their breaths for long periods as they dived for their prey underwater. They developed tiny bones to protect their eardrums, not unlike those developed by modern deep sea divers.
It seems that the shoreline ape-like bipeds, unlike their land based hunting ape cousins, are the only species that has a layer subcutaneous fat under their skins. (Protects them from the cold in the water of course.) Modern women too have this helpful layer of fat. In this perhaps the shoreline apes were more like their seagoing mammalian cousins, the whale and the dolphin. This gives us an image of the females buoyed up by water. Even while heavy or pregnant the females could hunt and swim for food to provide for their families on a more than equal footing with the males.
This element of evolutionary theory hints that there is another narrative about how we all evolved. This theory tells us that at least alongside the master-hunter male 'Tarzan' figures of the African Savannah we are also indebted to the much less macho shoreline ape for the fundamentals of our human identity.
This is on my mind now because here I am in the sun on the shores of a sea-lake that leads to the
Mediterranean. After that, Africa! In all my life I have taken
every opportunity to spend time by the sea, or within sight of other kinds of water
such as lakes and rivers. I feel at home there. I have an intense affinity with
It so happens that I’ve just published my new novel, The Bad Child, where water and swimming is very significant. In order to get the details of my story right as well as all this palaeontology, I’ve researched our human relationship with swimming, reading in particular contemporary sources which refer to the increasingly popular culture of Wild Swimming where people swim in ponds, lakes and in the sea, seem to find it a deeply satisfying way to spend their time
The literature of Wild Swimming is obsessive, poetic, and even euphoric. Some writers allude to pre-memory memories of water being not just there around and above them but as their natural habitat.
So sitting here by the shoreline I am feeling natural affinity with Dee, my heroine. And my million times grandmother the Shoreline Ape.
Link to the insightful Elaine Morgan who as a non-scientist has made good sense of these theories. See her book The Descent of woman